No. 4 men’s gymnastics prepares for showdown at No. 5 Michigan

After securing an undefeated home season, the No. 4 Illinois men’s gymnastics team will head to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines.

The Illini have been on the road twice this season, but both of those occasions were tournaments. Saturday will serve as the Orange and Blue’s first head-to-head matchup away from the comforts of Huff Hall.

“I think Michigan is the best team (in the Big Ten) right now so far for this season,” head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. “There is no question at this point that Michigan is the team to beat in the Big Ten. This will be a big test for us.”

The Fighting Illini closed out their home season with last Saturday’s win against then-No. 12 University of Illinois-Chicago. The first half of the season included many home meets, but now Illinois will hit the road for the final two meets of the regular season, starting with the Wolverines.

Huff Hall has been a fortress for the Illini this season, as they have sent every team home knowing nothing but failure. The team credits its fans for all the success it’s had at home, and it knows that going on the road will be a challenge for them.

“It’s going to be a little different because we don’t have that support behind us,” freshman C.J. Padera said. “I think that as a team we can support each other enough to kind of make up for that.”

Illinois and Michigan have already met twice this season in tournaments, and in both instances it was Michigan that finished on top.

The Wolverines denied the Illini the crown in the Windy City Invite and then took fourth place ahead of the Illini in the Pacific Coast Classic.

The meet at Michigan will also see Illinois ace Paul Ruggeri return to competitive action, to some extent. The sophomore has been sidelined for more than a month since the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge on Feb. 7.

“This will be our competition for Big Tens, so we’ll know what we need to beat this weekend,” Ruggeri said. “We obviously think we’re better. It’s almost like they’re peaking now and we haven’t peaked yet.”

The team has targeted a Big Ten championship as one of its goals for the season, and with the Big Ten Championships three weeks away and Michigan as the front-runner in the conference, the Illini have a great chance to deal a mental blow in Ann Arbor.

“It’d be a huge psychological boost for us, and if we can beat them there, it’s certainly a psychological blow to them,” Hayasaki said.

“They’re hosting the Big Ten Championships there. It’d be devastating for them.”